Friday, January 18, 2008

Cloverfield

Wow. I saw the midnight showing on Thursday night and the more I think about it, the more I loved this movie. If you haven't seen it yet, do so right now. I'm not joking. Turn off your computer and check this out in a theater while you still can. This is not a film to be viewed sitting on your couch at home.

Cloverfield
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: A cast of unknowns


The question most of you probably want answered is: Did Cloverfield live up to the hype? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Join me as I tell you why.

Let's talk about the marketing real quick before we get to the heart of the review. It all started with the cryptic trailer that first ran in front of Transformers last summer. The film title wasn't officially known at that point - at the end of the trailer it merely showed the release date and that was it. "1-18-08." So began one of the more excessive (and effective) viral campaigns in recent memory. Sites were popping up on a weekly basis promising more information about the film, and Paramount was controlling it all through their marketing directors. Some of these sites were official; others (such as the Ethan Haas sites) were elaborate fakes by fans (who were possibly paid by the studio) just to keep people's interest piqued and keep them speculating. This tactic definitely worked for Paramount: I haven't seen an online campaign like this since Snakes on a Plane, but unfortunately SoaP didn't quite turn out as the studios hoped (it had a lot of online hype, but not many people saw it in the theater). Cloverfield also did an exceptional job with their trailer. Without ruining the movie by showing us numerous clips in the trailer, they concentrated on one iconic scene: and they couldn't have chosen a more iconic scene than the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling down the middle of the street. Nice touch. I was pleased to discover that the entire contents of the trailer had been shown within the first twenty or thirty minutes of the movie, leaving the rest completely unknown to the viewer. They especially did a nice job of not showing us the monster in the preview (duh), which just fueled speculation even further on the monster's origins and what it would actually look like. The most ridiculous description I heard before seeing it was that the monster was a giant whale that shot barnacles as projectiles. It's safe to say that wasn't the case (sorry, Joe). And yes, you do get to see plenty of the monster by the end of the flick, so don't believe the rumors that they never fully show him to you.

Stylistically, nothing like this has been done before. I'm not talking about recently - I'm talking about EVER. Cloverfield is a breakthrough in movie history, and people are going to be talking about it for years to come. Yes, yes - movies like The Blair Witch Project have utilized the hand-held camera approach in similar ways, and God knows the Bourne franchise loves them some shaky cameras, but no one has been brave enough to try something like this with the intentions of making a successful movie (let alone a monster movie!). As most of you probably know by now, the film follows a group of twentysomethings in Manhattan. Rob is moving to Japan, but is in love with his longtime friend Beth. His brother Jason, Jason's fiance Lily, and Rob's best friend Hud throw him a going away party, where we spend the first half hour being introduced to the characters and their personalities. Then a giant monster attacks the city, and we follow them as they fight for survival in the streets of New York. The original thing about Cloverfield is that the entire film is made to look like it is composed of shots from their personal video camera. The only cuts in the movie are made when the camera operator Hud "pushes the record button" to stop the camera, and then it jump cuts to where he "pushes the button" again to catch us up. One of the downsides to this movie is also one of it's greatest strengths [much like Superman and his sense of right and wrong]: the camera work is a little overkill at some points, which can be pretty nauseating. Most of the time, though, I think it's good enough to handle. Perhaps that's just another sign of our generation being used to that type of shoddy camera work - I don't think our parents would handle it nearly as well as we will, since they don't have the experience with online videos that we've had in the past few years.

One of the key reasons I think Cloverfield succeeds is that it doesn't star a bunch of famous actors. If you think about it, this would absolutely kill the movie. There's no way that it would have the same effect if we saw Tom Cruise running around in this situation (Don't believe me? Go back and watch War of the Worlds again). You know what I mean. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier to attain than if, in the back of our heads, we were all saying "Oh, Jared Leto [or insert actor here] looks so much different than in other movies I've seen him in." Plus, with the home video aspect, it makes it that much more believable that these characters are just normal people that actually live in New York and have been caught in this catastrophic event. It all works so perfectly together, it's just insane.

I have to mention the sound before I go any further. INCREDIBLE. I don't know if the Academy would give any Oscars to this kind of movie, but they definitely should in this category. It would be well-deserved. I was blown away by it, and there isn't even a musical score in the whole thing! Obviously they wanted to keep the reality level high and not add a score to what's supposed to be a home movie. I didn't miss the music that much, and with the absence of music the other sounds were brought to the forefront, making them amazingly real. Kudos to the sound people who worked on this film.

(Spoiler Alert)

Some might see this as a monster movie dressed up in a new style, but Cloverfield is so much more than that. In our YouTube-obsessed society, the relationships of the characters in this movie hit home with us in ways that big budget blockbusters could never dream of evoking. Watching these people through the lens of their own camera places them on an equal playing field with us (the audience) because we all come across video like that on a daily basis, either through filming it ourselves or watching our friends' videos online. Michael Bay movies could never get that type of intimacy with their characters, simply because of the way they are presented visually on the screen. In the scene where the Statue of Liberty head lands in the street, do people run away screaming? No, they bust out their cell phones and snap pictures of it, just like all of us probably would if we were there. In Cloverfield, we feel like we've stumbled into Rob's party ourselves, an uninvited guest just checking things out and riding along with Hud, our narrator. When things get crazy, we feel like part of the group, trying to survive and making sure all our new friends are present and accounted for. We feel the losses that the main characters feel, even if we don't have a lot of backstory in order for us to relate to them.

In reality, we all can relate to these characters, whether we want to admit it or not. While we all may not be rich, white, upper class Manhattan-ites rubbing shoulders in a high rise overlooking the big city, we DO know what Cloverfield is really about. It's about 9/11. This whole movie is about September 11th, 2001. And you know what? I'm OK with that. For a while, I was disgusted with movies that depicted those events on screen.* I thought they were released "too soon." But now, almost seven years later, I think we can finally accept that time in our history and examine how it continues to affect us today. This film perfectly encapsulates those feelings that we had back in 2001: feelings of anguish, fear, shock, disbelief, and pent-up anger at those responsible, among others. Cloverfield captures our society's anxiety with relentless zeal and doesn't apologize for it. We can "relate" so easily to the characters in the movie because they don't really DO anything for the first half hour - except party, have fun, complain about relationship issues, and other things that aren't remotely important in the scheme of things. We do this crap every day. And then, out of nowhere, they are shocked by the most inconceivable of events taking place on their turf, with no preparation time or countdown: it just - happened, and there's no going back. Sound familiar? I also enjoyed Hud posing his theories about what the monster could be and where it could have come from, asking if the government was responsible (a pretty obvious metaphor for the conspiracy theories that state the U.S. government planned 9/11).

Apparently, some people have questioned the logic of Rob and his crew going back in after Beth when they realize she's trapped in the middle of the fray. I don't really find this questionable at all. You have to take their circumstances into account. Even if Rob wasn't a stand-up guy who just wanted to save the woman he loved, in their situation, the group needed a mission. Their world had been rocked, and they couldn't trust anything anymore. Taking on the "Find Beth" task gives them reason again, gives them a hope and a goal to move toward in a world that suddenly makes no sense to them. That's why Marlena stayed with the group instead of breaking off with the masses when she had the chance. What a great shot - Hud zooms down the block, focusing on the throng of people mindlessly being horded by the military in one direction, brilliantly summing up our nation's state of mind right after the 9/11 attacks. Marlena knew she would be better off with a goal to achieve instead of immediately allowing the reality of their situation to sink in.

When it finally DOES sink in - whew. I wouldn't want to have that conversation with my mom on the phone like Rob did in the subway. That could have easily been a cheesy scene, but the filmmakers used it to its full potential as the first time the characters had a chance to take a breath and realize the enormity of their situation. That's why they had to keep moving. They couldn't allow themselves to be brought down with the heavy reality of what had happened. And talk about intense - that scene in the tunnels had everyone in the theater on the edge of their seats. That was like I Am Legend intense, and I loved it.

Another aspect of the movie that I thought was a great touch was the framing of the tape used in the video camera. If you've read this far, then you know that in the beginning of the movie we first see Rob and Beth after their night of passion, unofficially introducing their characters as the main ones and giving the audience a chance to get to know them so we can "pull for them" to be together later on. Well done, screenwriter. Right before the party scene, we find out that tape is being recorded over, and the party scene and everything that takes place after it tapes over Rob and Beth's adventure at Coney Island that took place a few weeks before the monster attack. While we don't necessarily catch too many glimpses of what happened that day with our two main characters, all we needed to see was shown to us: the introduction in the beginning (with Rob saying "this is going to be a good day") and the ending, which I thought was the only good way to end a film like this. After all the main characters died and the camera stops recording, we get one final look back into Rob and Beth's day of paradise with them on the Ferris Wheel and Beth delivering her last words "I had a good day." In my opinion, it couldn't have ended better. I know it sucks that all the main characters had to die, but that's the way good monster movies should work. No one survives. The monster represents all those things we talked about before (fear, anxiety, etc), and no one is ever going to be really free of those things. So that was the way it HAD to end, and I'm glad they went with that type of ending and didn't go for the typical Hollywood B.S. that someone survives. Seriously, they were asking a little much for us to believe that Hud, Rob, and Beth all survived that helicopter crash at the end, so they were already pushing their luck.

While I'm on the topic of the ending, I think it's worth noting that there is a little controversy brewing online about whether or not the monster's origins were shown in the final Ferris Wheel scene between Rob and Beth. If you'll recall, Rob points the camera out over the water and holds it there for a little while. I scanned the water as I was in the theater, hoping for some kind of motion indicating the monster's arrival to the shores of the city. I didn't see anything. Now I'm reading online that something dropped from the sky and there was a splash in the upper right hand corner of the screen. Could this be the monster? No one really knows. I'll have to check for it the next time I watch the film. And - if you stay until after the credits, there's one more little garbled audio transmission that supposedly says "Help us," but if you play it backwards, it really says "It's still alive." I have no idea how people got their hands on that audio clip to reverse it since the movie just came out in the freakin' theater like three days ago, but somehow they did. Phil McCarty posted it here, if you want to hear it for yourself. This obviously leads to possibilities of a sequel, but that's another story.

Never has a film so well captured both my attention and my subconscious simultaneously. This movie resonated with me in a big way, and hopefully it did for you too. Not since Shoot 'Em Up has a movie told us it what type of film it was going to be and then made good on that promise in such an explosive way. Dare I say, we have a new classic on our hands. Until next time...

*Side note: I'm not sure if I would have accepted Cloverfield as much as I did WITHOUT the presence of those other movies that I hated for coming out so early. So, to United 93 and World Trade Center: I guess I owe you some thanks for blazing the trail and receiving my wrath, paving the way for movies like Cloverfield to be acceptable in my mind.

3 comments:

Boomer said...

i could not disagree with anything you said. i enjoyed reading it

dug the review said...

I still don't think that 9-11 has anything to do with it...it could be an allegory for anything destructive...or it could just be a monster movie

Nightthorn k'Vala said...

Holy goddess, I thought I was the only one that DID NOT SEE anything falling into the water. I've watched that scene five of six times and never saw what everyone said was there. What a relief. I just couldn't figure that out. Many thanks to you.